Sunday, June 17

Top 15 cases of the last 150 years summarised


Essential reading for law students – summary of the most important fifteen cases reported by the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting in its 150 years of existence.

The ICLR has been producing Law Reports since 1865 and to commemorate its 150 year anniversary this year the Council asked its subscribers to vote on what they perceived to be the most important fifteen cases to have been reported within their reports since this time. Voters were asked to vote for 1 case each from the following 5 time periods:

  • 1865-1914
  • 1915-1945
  • 1946-1970
  • 1971-1995
  • 1996-2014

Readers were given a shortlist of cases they could vote for which can be found here. The results of the vote provided the following list of renowned judgments, in no particular order:

  1. Rylands v Fletcher (1866) LR 3 HL 330
  2. Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co [1893] 1 QB 256
  3. Salomon v A Salomon & Co [1897] AC 22
  4. Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] AC 562
  5. Woolmington v Director of Public Prosecutions [1935] AC 462
  6. Liversidge v Anderson [1942] AC 206
  7. Central London Property Trust Ltd v High Trees House Ltd [1947] KB 130
  8. Associated Provincial Picture Houses v Wednesbury Corporation [1948] 1 KB 223
  9. Anisminic Ltd v Foreign Compensation Commission [1969] 2 AC 147
  10. Caparo Industries plc v Dickman [1990] 2 AC 605
  11. R v R [1992] 1 AC 599
  12. Pepper v Hart [1993] AC 593
  13. In re A (Children) (Conjoined Twins: Surgical Separation) [2001] Fam 147
  14. A v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2005] 2 AC 68
  15. Chartbrook Ltd v Persimmon Homes Ltd [2009] 1 AC 1101

The following article intends to explain, briefly, the significance of each of these cases and why they have earned their place on this list.

Rylands v Fletcher

The general rule arising from Rylands is that if a party brings something onto their land which is likely to do damage if it escapes, then he is liable for the damage that is the natural consequence of that escape. At the time this House of Lords case was regarded as creating a completely new law in Tort, however subsequent cases have now classified it as a sub-species of nuisance. Over the last century though the rule’s usage has become very limited as it has been consistently curtailed by judicially imposed exceptions. Often claimants will simply claim under negligence or nuisance as these causes of action can be easier to satisfy. Arguably the hardest element to satisfy is that the ‘something’ on the land must constitute an ‘extraordinary’ use of the land. Whilst claims under this rule were common in the later part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century, developments in the law of negligence and nuisance mean this case is probably on this list due to its importance in the past as opposed to its importance in the present day.

Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball

A case that practically every law student will be familiar with as it is one of the first cases you will ever come across in contract law. Famously, the Carbolic Smoke Ball company produced an advertisement saying that they would pay a £100 reward to anyone who still contracted influenza whilst taking their ‘smoke ball’. Mrs Carlill tried to claim the reward after complying with the terms of the advertisement. The Court of Appeal then famously held that an advertisement can create a valid offer for a unilateral contract, which only needs to be accepted through performance rather than any other means. Unquestionably this is one of the most important cases in terms of laying the foundations for modern contract law.

Salomon v Salomon & Co Ltd

The House of Lords in this cases famously overturned the Court of Appeal and the High Court to state that a limited company had a separate legal personality from that of its shareholders and that they in turn could not be liable for the liabilities of that company. The Court of Appeal had originally said that Salomon & Co Ltd was a trustee for Mr Salomon and that therefore he had to indemnify the company’s debts, yet the House of Lords disagreed. The importance of this case cannot be overstated. The concept of a company as a separate legal person is pervasive to almost every area of law.

Donoghue v Stevenson

Arguably the most famous case in the history of our legal system. Everybody knows about Mrs Donoghue and the decomposed snail she found in her ginger beer which then led to the judgment which truly paved the way for the law of negligence. Famously Lord Atkin in the House of Lords enunciated the ‘neighbour principle’ which is that:

“You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. Who, then, in law, is my neighbour? The answer seems to be – persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question.”

Woolmington v Director of Public Prosecutions

The first criminal case on the list and the case that lays down the one rule that the criminal justice system hinges upon. That rule is of course that the burden of proof lays on the prosecution to show that the accused is guilty and not the other way around. There are of course exceptions to this yet this is the ‘golden thread’ that is pervasive to our whole criminal system.

Liversidge v Anderson

The first case so far in this list that is arguably wrong in the modern day. This case concerned a wartime regulation which allowed the Home Secretary to detain anybody who he had ‘reasonable cause’ to believe was a person of hostile association. The Home Secretary exercised this power with respect to Mr Liversidge and imprisoned him without reason. The case eventually reached the House of Lords and hinged on whether the ‘reasonable cause’ imposed an objective test to be decided by the courts or whether it meant that the Home Secretary only needed to have reasonable cause. The majority held the latter however Lord Atkin famously dissented, referring to his fellow Law Lords as being ‘more executive minded than the executive’ as they were essentially surrendering their role to control the executive with this decision. As eluded to earlier this case has been described as ‘peculiar’ and it has been accepted in House of Lords decisions since that this case was probably decided wrongly. Therefore the importance of this case stems more from the judgment of Lord Atkin than from the decision itself, which essentially states that the rule of law must always be upheld regardless of the circumstances.

Central London Property v High Trees

The first case on this list where judgment was delivered by the unforgettable Lord Denning. However what those who are unaware with this case should note is that this is actually a case from the High Court, yet it was singlehandedly responsible for resurrecting the concept of ‘Promissory Estoppel’ from its seemingly redundant state at that point. The notion has since become far more frequently used in cases since as a means of preventing people from going back on their word, even where there is a lack of consideration to create an agreement.

Associated Provincial Picture Houses v Wednesbury

The case behind the phrase ‘Wednesbury unreasonableness’ – the standard of unreasonableness that public body decisions are measured against in judicial review cases. Lord Greene MR stated here that the court could only interfere with the decision of a public authority if the authority took into account factors it should not have taken into account, failed to take into account factors which it ought to have taken into account or made a decision that was so unreasonable that no reasonable authority would ever consider imposing it. If Liversidge is anything to go by courts at this time were still tentative to interfere with administrative decisions. The importance of this case is that provided a solid, reliable and logical framework via which courts could do so, which has undoubtedly increased the willingness of courts to interfere in administrative decisions when necessary.

Anisminic v Foreign Compensation Commission

In this case the Foreign Compensation Act stated that “The determination by the commission of any application made to them under this Act shall not be called into question in any court of law”. Therefore the act precluded that any decision made by the Foreign Compensation Commission could not be called into question by the court. However the House of Lords held that they could in fact quash a decision of the Commission as their decision had not been a ‘determination’ but had been a ‘nullity’ based on the fact that they had taken into account something which they had no right to take into account. This case once again demonstrated the court’s increased willingness to hold legislators to account and made it clear that the court would not easily allow authorities to escape judicial intervention by so-called ‘ouster clauses’.

Caparo Industries v Dickman

Save for exceptional circumstances, nowadays it can be inferred based on previous cases whether or not a particular situation gives rise to a duty of care being imposed on a party. However this case famously lays down the three stage test for determining whether or not a duty is present when there is no such previous finding for the existence of one. The test was laid down by Lord Bridge in the House of Lords and is as follows:

(1) Harm must be reasonably foreseeable as a result of the defendant’s conduct,

(2) The parties must be in a relationship of proximity, and

(3)It must be fair, just and reasonable to impose liability

As I mentioned above to say that this test is given thought to in every case of negligence is incorrect, however this case’s importance stems from its logical way of explaining how and why duties arise.

R v R

In 1992 the House of Lords finally overturned the common law rule that a man who raped his wife could not be guilty of rape in the eyes of the law. The importance of this case speaks for itself – it is the perfect example of how the courts can and should bring the law in line with the views of society.

Pepper v Hart

A case that every law student needs to be aware of, especially when involved in moots over an ambiguous statutory provision. In this case the House of Lords took the decision to relax the rule that states that the courts may not look at the parliamentary history of legislation or Hansard for the purposes of construing it. However this is only so where the legislative words are ambiguous, obscure or would lead to an absurdity based on their ordinary reading. Despite the potential constitutional issues surrounding this decision at the time it is a logical one that remains just as important today.

In re A (Children) (Conjoined Twins: Surgical Separation)

The importance of this case stems from the fact that it was not only concerned with law but undoubtedly embraced issues of morality, ethics and religion all in one. The children in this case were conjoined twins, Gracie and Rosie (known by the pseudonyms Jodie and Mary at the time). If they were surgically separated then Gracie had a 94% survival rate but Rosie would undoubtedly die. If they were left together they would both die in 6 months. Made all the more difficult was the fact that the parents in this case did not want the surgery to take place and wanted nature to take its course. The question before the court was whether they could authorise the surgery. Relying on the doctrine of necessity the House of Lords arrived at the decision that they could authorise the surgery and, as predicted, Gracie survived but Rosie did not. A truly unforgettable judicial decision that continues to provoke controversy and discussion to this very day.

A v Secretary of State for the Home Department

Heard before a panel of nine Law Lords, this is the only case on the list which looks at the relationship between the courts and the Human Rights Act. The House of Lords had to consider here whether the indefinite detention of foreign prisoners under the Anti-Terrorism Act 2001 was compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The House concluded that it was incompatible and therefore they issued a declaration of incompatibility. At the time this was regarded as being the first significant judicial challenge under the Human Rights Act to executive and legislative action to bypass the rights of the European Convention.

Chartbrook v Persimmon Homes

The most recent case on the list is one that many may not in fact be familiar with. It is a case concerning the interpretation of commercial contracts. Logically, this case makes it clear that the courts are willing to construe the wording of a contract liberally where the contract does not make sense in its commercial context on a literal reading. Lord Hoffman stated that if there is a mistake in a contract then the court does not need to resort to the remedy of rectification (the remedy of modifying the document) if it is clear from the document what the meaning of the contract should have been. This case has been hailed as a victory for common sense by some whilst being accused of blurring the lines between construction and rectification of a contract by others.

You can watch the speech delivered by Lord Neuberger at the 150th anniversary celebration of the ICLR where he references this list here.



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Co-founder of Legal Loop, pupil barrister.

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